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Road to revolution

The Left Front Govt’s 30 years in power is a record, not just on the slippery ground of Indian politics but also in electoral politics anywhere in the world, writes D Bhattacharyya.

india Updated: Jun 21, 2007 03:13 IST

The Left Front government’s 30 years in power is a record, not just on the slippery ground of Indian politics but also in electoral politics anywhere in the world. Change and evolution are constants in politics and the CPI(M)-led coalition is no stranger to that. Focusing on the Left Front’s journey, it is possible to identify at least three clear phases.

The first chapter began in the late 1970s and continued for about seven years with the introduction of key innovative institutions such as land reform laws and decentralised administration — measures not implemented from the state headquarters but as programmes having a close interface with people at the ground level. Bureaucratic processes were made subordinate to political exigencies. Politics sought to reach out to the marginal and bring them within the fold of recognition and dignity. In short, the Left policies were idealistic and bottom-up and people found them largely inclusive.

The measures, along with agricultural growth and the organisational spread of Left parties and their increasing mass base, were responsible for the Front’s solid electoral foundation.

Things, however, started changing between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. The Left became keen to establish control over most public institutions. Institutional innovations took a back seat. This guaranteed a rapid spread of support but also ensured widespread violation of institutional autonomy. The lines between political and civic activities, public and partisan interests were blurred and a party-society emerged.

From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, Left organisations — of farmers, salaried employees, students, teachers or industrial workers — acted as conduits between people and state apparatu. In rural and semi-rural areas, the organisations were the facilitators for everything from admission to hospitals to selection of beneficiaries in government schemes. People approached them to settle private, even family, disputes.

It is impossible to understand the durability of the government without appreciating the spread of Left organisations in Bengal’s social sphere. They gave the society a sense of coherence and made the Left — in its anxiety to be acceptable — socially conservative. It was a matter of political convenience.

From the late 1990s began the third phase when the consensus-making abilities of informal structures were put to challenge. With India’s role in the economy receding, Bengal found new opportunities to attract private investment. After some initial vacillation, Bengal jumped into competition with other states for wooing private capital.

This had the Left troubled. While the rhetoric and positioning of the Nehruvian state’s command economy had offered it room to be critical of private capital, the neo-liberal order denied that. The challenge before the Left was to align with capitalist globalisation and accrue its advantages without appearing as its votary.

The social consensus of yesteryear was reaching a breaking point. The rising popularity of chaotic agitation was soon to become a brand for the newly born Trinamool Congress, which rapidly turned into the principal Opposition. The Left, in turn, played the card of development and a better Left Front.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee replaced the ageing Jyoti Basu as the new face of the Left — gentle, bhadra, imbued with social ethics, yet not chary of calling himself a friend of capital. He soon realised that the party and mass organisations, at least initially, would be of little help in his new venture.

With a missionary zeal for rapid industrialisation, Buddhadeb sought to bypass the political process and engage the government with the people. In a way, he was undoing what the Left had done for over two decades. He misread the massive verdict of the 2006 Assembly election as an approval for his ways and scrambled to acquire fertile agricultural land purely by bureaucratic means for the Tata car factory in Singur.

With a series of administrative blunders in Nandigram, the anti-government agitation snowballed into a rejection of its action. As the situation was getting out of hand, the organisational base of the Left struck back.

Attempts are now under way at the state level to enlist minimum Opposition support for key issues such as acquisition of agricultural land for industrial use and compensation packages and, at the district level, to make the local Opposition a stakeholder in industrialisation and urbanisation projects. Clearly, the signals are that the Left will promote competition between districts, blocks and even panchayats for investments, just as between states.

So the bottom-up mode of governance, which turned top-down, is being reverted, but in a radically different political and economic climate. The odds are now against the Left — political imagination worldwide has taken a Right-wing shift and it will require a lot of creative energy to revitalise idealism inevitable for harnessing the Left’s critical faculties. Can the Left innovate institutional devices to address inequality and social exclusion, public education and health while engaging with the neo-liberal charter of governance? The answer will largely determine the Left’s political worth in the decades to come.

The writer is fellow, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.